What happened at the EDP – and why it changed

I discovered this week that Archant – formerly Eastern Counties Newspapers, where I worked for 30 years – is closing its print works at Thorpe St Andrew, on the fringe of Norwich. This was a bit of a shock, because I remember it being built. It opened in 1995, which is not that long ago.

When I joined the Eastern Daily Press in 1972, as a sub-editor working initially between 5pm and 1am, the printing press was still part of Prospect House – the proud city-centre fortress at the top of Rouen Road, itself still only 50 years old and due for demolition soon.

In 1972 the EDP sold close to 100,000 copies a day, covering Norfolk and bits of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We had three editions: 1st, which covered King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, 2nd, which covered South Norfolk and North Suffolk, and 3rd, which covered Norwich and North Norfolk. This was a practical thing, governed by how long it took van drivers to deliver the papers. Obviously we could sometimes get later stories into the 3rdedition, and subs on the late shift, ending at 4am, changed several pages.

The EDP will soon be printed by contractors at Broxbourne, 100 miles from Norwich; so all that will no longer apply.

Circulation, by the way, is not the same as readership. A circulation of 100,000 could mean a readership of well over a quarter of a million. EDP circulation nowadays is about 25,000, but the paper is also available online.

This is obviously a massive change – but it’s just the latest in a series of changes at the company, the three most significant of which took place at intervals of exactly ten years from 1975 and were the result of technological innovation that affected all newspapers and prompted many premature predictions of doom.

The first was the switch from hot metal to computer-set printing. Before 1975 copy (that is, stories and advertising material) was created and subbed (edited) on paper and sent out to the works to be set by printers on Linotype machines. This came to be known as double keyboarding, in that the story was typed first by the reporter and then (after subbing) by the printer. 

A Linotype machine produced (not surprisingly) lines of metal type that made up the page. The page was put together inside a metal frame by a compositor – a highly skilled job that was completely and sadly lost in 1975. The type on the metal page (made mainly of lead) was back to front, because it printed direct on to paper (called newsprint). 

The lines of type were spaced out with thin strips of lead to make them fit tightly. Computers still use the term “leading” for space between the lines. They also still measure type in the traditional points (72 points = roughly 2.5cm).

In 1975 the company changed to computer-setting of type. There was still double-keyboarding, but now the mainframe computer produced type on photographic paper (called bromides). This was then stuck on to a base sheet (using melted wax) and photographed, making first a page negative, then a plate (made of aluminium), which was fixed on to the new press.  It printed on to a rubber roller (back to front) and then on to newsprint. This was (and is) called web-offset printing.

In 1985, just after I became chief sub-editor, journalists began using computers (dumb terminals connected to a mainframe) to input copy, thus introducing single keyboarding and eliminating the role of the printers who used to do the stetting. This was a big advantage for us sub-editors: we could call the stories up on screen, edit them and write headings. The big advantage consisted in knowing exactly how long the story was going to be, and whether the heading would fit or not. But the page paste-up and printing remained the same.

In 1995, when I was no longer a full-time sub, but standing in occasionally and doing some training of others, electronic page make-up was introduced, and the mainframe was replaced by linked PCs. Now sub-editors designed pages on screen using QuarkXPress, and the completed pages were sent by wire to the new press centre at Thorpe, where they made plates for us on the new web-offset press. 

This meant jobs lost again in the printing section, since paste-up of pages was no longer necessary. Pictures were scanned into the system and could be brought on to the page by the sub-editors. 

At the same time, we went from broadsheet to tabloid, which was much debated because it was usually associated with going downmarket. So it was decided to go a bit upmarket at the same time, to counter this feeling. And we didn’t call it tabloid: we called it compact. So that was all right.

Why did tabloid mean downmarket? Because there were more pages, and so you had to find more stories that would make a page lead. So you ended up making a lot out of stories that didn’t really deserve it and prompted one senior journalist to define the perfect EDP story as one that “had no substance but could be made to look good”.

This, of course, was quite unfair but undeniably amusing. It applies to all tabloids, of course. You might like to check.